Amoris Laetitia: All Things to All Men

On the day of its release, perhaps the least quoted passage of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhortation “On Love in the Family,” were the first three sentences of paragraph 7:

Given the rich fruits of the two-year Synod process, this Exhortation will treat, in different ways, a wide variety of questions. This explains its inevitable length. Consequently, I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text.

A cynic might reply that the Holy Father need not have worried, since most of those who commented on the document in the first hours after its release could not be said to have engaged in a “rushed reading of the text,” because they did not actually read the text. Rather, as has become the norm regarding important and lengthy documents in our short-attention-span “Information Age,” most of those who were first out of the gate already knew what they intended to say about Amoris Laetitia; all they needed to do was to skim it quickly, looking for lines that they could use as proof that their preconceived notions were correct.

The most common preconceived notion was that Pope Francis intended to sneak in somehow a version of the “Kasper Proposal”—that is, an official recognition of the practice, nearly universal in Cardinal Kasper’s Germany (and all too common here in the United States as well) of admitting divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to Communion. Many of those who opposed the Kasper Proposal and those who approved of it seemed equally convinced that it would find its way into the Apostolic Exhortation, and in the rush to approve or condemn the document, both found some justification for their claim in footnote 351 in Chapter Eight, “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness.”

We will return to Chapter 8 soon, but first let us take a look at two more sentences from paragraph 7, because they go to the heart of the manifest strengths and (what I believe to be) the chief weakness of this document. Picking up from the previous quotation (emphasis mine):

The greatest benefit, for families themselves and for those engaged in the family apostolate, will come if each part is read patiently and carefully, or if attention is paid to the parts dealing with their specific needs. It is likely, for example, that married couples will be more concerned with Chapters Four and Five, and pastoral ministers with Chapter Six, while everyone should feel challenged by Chapter Eight.

The Holy Father is certainly right about Chapters Four and Five, which are a beautiful meditation on married love (Chapter Four) and its ultimate expression in cooperation with God in the creation of new life (Chapter Five). Even as he expounds on the meanings of the various Greek words and phrases found in Saint Paul’s “lyrical passage” on love (1 Corinthians 13:4–7), Pope Francis writes simply, clearly, forcefully, in the pastoral language of the best homilies. There is none of the academic jargon into which he and his immediate predecessors have often fallen (and which is found elsewhere in this very document). Nor is there any of the mischievous wordplay that has so often led to public confusion over his answers to reporters and to the sense (expressed either in exasperation or admiration) that the pontiff is a “wily Jesuit.”

These two chapters should be read by all married couples, and by those preparing for marriage, and returned to at least once a year, if not more often. And they can be read, as Pope Francis indicates, in isolation from the rest of the document—which leads us to the document’s greatest weakness, which the Holy Father himself has exposed in the section I italicized in the last quotation.

This is a document that tries to be all things to all men—not in the sense that its critics claim (i.e., upholding Catholic doctrine on marriage and the family while introducing pastoral practices that would undermine such doctrine), but in the sense that it should be multiple documents, each one aimed at a different group of Catholics, depending on their state in life.

And here I disagree, in a very limited, prudential sense, with Pope Francis regarding Chapter Eight. It is indeed a challenging chapter, but those it properly challenges are pastors—that is, those who by their vocation are called to “Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness” among their flock. With the exception of the penultimate and antepenultimate sentences, the chapter is written entirely to pastors; even those two sentences simply “encourage the faithful who find themselves in complicated situations to speak confidently with their pastors or with other lay people whose lives are committed to the Lord,” in order “to help them better understand their situation and discover a path to personal growth.”

The reality of Amoris Laetitia is this: Despite all of the angst of the past two years (brought on, it must be said, in large part by the very public process that the Holy Father desired for the Synod of the Bishops on the Family), and despite all of the energy expended by both “sides” of the debate surrounding the synod, this Apostolic Exhortation does not make any change in doctrine because it never could do so, and as thorny and “challenging” as parts of Chapter Eight may be, they deal with those “complicated situations” that no lay Catholic—whether in such a situation himself or observing it from outside—can resolve on his own. Pastoral intervention is necessary, and while the Holy Father is right to call (elsewhere in the document) for better and more intensive marriage preparation, pastors, too, need to be better prepared than most currently are to counsel those in “complicated situations.” They need not only to understand what the Church teaches about marriage but also how to convey the consequences of that teaching in charity. And they need to be better informed about, and taught to seek out and recognize among their flock, those situations where the Church has made and continues to make legitimate accommodations that do not contradict the truth of Her teaching on marriage. (For example, that many civilly divorced Catholics may licitly receive Communion, because they have not remarried and are living chaste lives.)

Had this chapter, and Chapter Six, been released as a separate document, addressed to the bishops, priests, and deacons of the world, those who wished to make hay of it one way or another would no doubt still have done so, but it would have distracted less from the rest of the document, which not only strongly upholds Catholic teaching on the family but makes it clear that the family, and not the “individual,” is the fundamental unit of society, both secular and ecclesiastical. As Pope Francis writes repeatedly throughout Amoris Laetitia, the family—husband (father), wife (mother), and children—is the reflection of the Holy Trinity here on earth. The nuptial language of Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride the Church, reflected in the union of spouses, is amplified and extended throughout this document in the image of the family as co-creators with God through analogy to the Holy Trinity. Those who, like Pope Francis, are intimately familiar with the writings of the Eastern Fathers of the Church will immediately see the parallels.

Even more so than Catholic teaching on the complementarity of the sexes, which all too often is swept aside by those who see sex roles as merely functional, this analogy to the Trinity is why the family cannot be “redefined”; why a union of two men or two women can never be a marriage; why sex cannot be divorced from procreation without doing damage to our very selves, and why procreation cannot be divorced from sex without damaging the child who results from that act. And those who take the time to read this document with the care with which Pope Francis wrote it will realize that the Supreme Pastor who returns to this analogy again and again throughout Amoris Laetitia was never in any danger of abandoning the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, handed down from the Second Person of the Trinity Himself.

Scott P. Richert

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Scott P. Richert is the Senior Content Network Manager for Our Sunday Visitor and Editor at Large for Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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